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The Politics of Space and Canvas Topography – Hierarchies of Street Art

Written by Shanaia Kapoor, 27th July 2020

In the suburbs of Bandra, sits a Mumbai few have known. With Gaonthans and the Koli community still claiming parts of the island, shared by the migrant marquee residents, the landscape is a cultural weave of street art and the frayed ends of Bombay Bollywood. Bandra stands as a melting pot of demographics, ‘cool’ migrants, religious identities and the juxtaposition of freshness with the facade of the familiar. Calling this urban imagination – with its craft-beers and Catholics, pub-grubs and promenades – a product of gentrification, would be discounting its blanket state of flux. This location’s malleability is mirrored by DOME’s Dali-esque wall art titled ‘Coming Home’, depicting the ‘urban poor’ fisherman with a cow’s head, on a cycle with the day’s catch and a guitar. 

Similarly, in Delhi, Shahpur Jat and Hauz Khas village became street galleries overnight but showcased a stark contrast in the way they became represented over the years– a micro reflection of space politics resulting from artistic insertion. Hauz Khas has become a homogenous sub-centre for patrons, pricy pastels and pulled pork on the weekends, with locals hidden away, behind cab fares and cash counters. The urban ‘bohemian’ sensibility of its art and culture remain highlighted by the dumpster graffiti but is lost in light of the space’s developed commercialism. 

Providing a contrast to this streamlined locale is Shahpur Jat, where hybridised shop windows and class-based diversity provide inclusivity in its retail platform. However, remnants of pre-existing rural neighbourhoods have been washed out by gentrifying factors cloaked in the garb of aestheticism and re-imagination. Artists used hidden, residential areas inhabited by working-class families to paint on. The difference in canvas spaces between the two urban villages, begs a few important questions– are some canvases more important than others? Who decides and what are the parameters? Who comprises the intended viewership? Who is this art really for? With locations such as these morphing into museums for street artists, the discourse surrounding the artwork’s contribution to property value spikes and ‘urban’ cultural ethos becomes important to inspect.

Certain canvases stand vulnerable in the face of both gentrification and morally driven artists’ ‘saviour complex’– a phenomenon taking local ghettos by storm. Dharavi, for example, is becoming a desired canvas for contemporary graffiti artists. In an interview with The Hindu, one of Dharavi’s local artist managers revealed an inherent discomfort with external sources, “Why should these fancy artists, who never cared about Dharavi and looked down upon us in the past, now come here and show off their skills?”. Local representation, by marginalised communities, is being de-platformed by famous craftspeople who can afford the equipment this art form requires. Admittedly, dissent is key to a functioning democracy. Artists like Daku, with his ‘middle finger’ marked with voter’s ink, portraits of a Modi fallen and ‘Fuck’ painted across nine buildings to defy ACP Vasant Dhoble (after his crackdown on street art), create platforms for protest. However, does it remain participative allyship when these artists hijack the creative spaces from the same minorities their art seeks to benefit? 

The question is an important one. Is it ethical for art that is representing minorities and their battles, to be created by artists so far removed from them? It is tricky, because when allyship comes into play, the line between advocacy and annexation wears thin. Admittedly, it has always been said that those with established platforms and privileged identities, maintain the responsibility to communicate on behalf of those who ‘can’t’. Perhaps this notion of ‘voicing for the voiceless’ has survived thus far, only because those with minimal platforms, have never been left any space to occupy. It is a cycle that cannot be broken until minority artists are given the platform to reclaim and represent their own cultures, conflicts and creativity. 

Delhi University’s ‘Wall of Democracy’, JNU’s protest art, and Shilo’s murals all provide a starkly different take on street art and graffiti when compared to metro-cities’ posher postal codes. With this kind of politically coloured and provocative art, comes the wooden gavel of selective censorship that manages to whitewash acts of expressional dissent, under the pretext of rigid legalities. Legally, graffiti manages to narrowly escape the Prevention of Defacement of Property Act 2007 and Damage to Public Property Act 1984. This makes issuing arrest warrants a subjective action, left to the discretion of the local DCP or the officer in charge. There have been incidents in the past, where walls were painted over, whitewashed and redone by authorities under the pretext of eliminating the threat to road safety (art construed as cause for distraction), defacement and vandalism. 

Censorship can be detrimental to artists’ careers, as it has proven to be in the past. To be able to exercise freedom of creativity and expression within a political framework such as India’s is nearly impossible. However, the mere ability to separate art from politics is a product of having an identity that is situated in some form of socioeconomic and political privilege, where oppression isn’t personal. Kashmir, for example, upholds public art as a method of protest. Reflections of this can be seen in the portrait of JKLF founder, Maqbool Bhat or on a wall near Jhelum river, painted over with protest graffiti– one of the only remaining forms of dissent in the Valley, in light of the frequent internet clampdowns and enforced disappearances. Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh saw a similar movement, where art and installations occupied every corner as methods of protest against the CAA and NRC. A 40-foot iron structure carved in the shape of India’s map with “Hum Bharat ke log CAA-NPR-NRC nahi maante” (We the people of India reject CAA-NPR-NRC) stood in its centre. There was also a replica of India gate, drawn over with the names of people who lost their lives in the preceding violent outbreaks that occurred as a result of the protests. 

In ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’, Michel De Certeau argues, “Space is a practised place… It occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities”. Space, public or private, cannot be apolitical. Whether it is in Shahpur Jat or Srinagar, Hill Road or Hauz Khas, Dharavi or DU, street art maintains a purpose. Unfortunately, the art world has revealed a hierarchy of canvases – one that privileges an urban-elite proclaimed to be ‘woke’ and ‘cultured creators. It is important for these creators to step back and maintain allyship without de-platforming local artists, instead respecting a space’s origin and rurality without imposing ideas of newness, no matter how imperative it may seem. Especially now, with a culture in flux, defaming traditionality and borrowing from it when convenient may find us culturally barren and void of inspiration. Preserve the dying and protest the death. 

Experience Further: Indian Ocean’s ‘Jogiya’ is part of their 2012 album ’16/330 Khajoor Road’- the address of a 100 year old Delhi bungalow which saw parties, cricket, chai and a perpetual stream of creation. The album title, along with the song’s dynamic instruments, echoes the sense of city flux and art spaces I discuss in my piece.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture through investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society

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